Gender gaps in virtual economies: are there virtual ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ collar occupations?

She could end up earning 11 percent less than her male colleagues .. Image from EVE Online by zcar.300.

Ed: Firstly, what is a ‘virtual’ economy? And what exactly are people earning or exchanging in these online environments?

Vili: A virtual economy is an economy that revolves around artificially scarce virtual markers, such as Facebook likes or, in this case, virtual items and currencies in an online game. A lot of what we do online today is rewarded with such virtual wealth instead of, say, money.

Ed: In terms of ‘virtual earning power’ what was the relationship between character gender and user gender?

Vili: We know that in national economies, men and women tend to be rewarded differently for the same amount of work; men tend to earn more than women. Since online economies are such a big part of many people’s lives today, we wanted to know if this holds true in those economies as well. Looking at the virtual economies of two massively-multiplayer online games (MMOG), we found that there are indeed some gender differences in how much virtual wealth players accumulate within the same number of hours played. In one game, EVE Online, male players were on average 11 percent wealthier than female players of the same age, character skill level, and time spent playing. We believe that this finding is explained at least in part by the fact that male and female players tend to favour different activities within the game worlds, what we call “virtual pink and blue collar occupations”. In national economies, this is called occupational segregation: jobs perceived as suitable for men are rewarded differently from jobs perceived as suitable for women, resulting in a gender earnings gap.

However, in another game, EverQuest II, we found that male and female players were approximately equally wealthy. This reflects the fact that games differ in what kind of activities they reward. Some provide a better economic return on fighting and exploring, while others make it more profitable to engage in trading and building social networks. In this respect games differ from national economies, which all tend to be biased towards rewarding male-type activities. Going beyond this particular study, fantasy economies could also help illuminate the processes through which particular occupations come to be regarded as suitable for men or for women, because game developers can dream up new occupations with no prior gender expectations attached.

Ed: You also discussed the distinction between user gender and character gender.

Vili: Besides occupational segregation, there are also other mechanisms that could explain economic gender gaps, like differences in performance or outright discrimination in pay negotiations. What’s interesting about game economies is that people can appear in the guise of a gender that differs from their everyday identity: men can play female characters and vice versa. By looking at player gender and character gender separately, we can distinguish between how “being” female and “appearing to be” female are related to economic outcomes.

We found that in EVE Online, using a female character was associated with slightly less virtual wealth, while in EverQuest II, using a female character was associated with being richer on average. Since in our study the players chose the characters themselves instead of being assigned characters at random, we don’t know what the causal relationship between character gender and wealth in these games was, if any. But it’s interesting to note that again the results differed completely between games, suggesting that while gender does matter, its effect has more to do with the mutable “software” of the players and/or the coded environments rather than our immutable “hardware”.

Ed: The dataset you worked with could be considered to be an example of ‘big data’ (ie you had full transactional trace data people interacting in two games)—what can you discover with this sort of data (as opposed to eg user surveys, participant observation, or ethnographies); and how useful or powerful is it?

Vili: Social researchers are used to working with small samples of data, and then looking at measures of statistical significance to assess whether the findings are generalisable to the overall population or whether they’re just a fluke. This focus on statistical significance is sometimes so extreme that people forget to consider the practical significance of the findings: even if the effect is real, is it big enough to make any difference in practice? In contrast, when you are working with big data, almost any relationship is statistically significant, so that becomes irrelevant. As a result, people learn to focus more on practical significance—researchers, peer reviewers, journal editors, funders, as well as the general public. This is a good thing, because it can increase the impact that social research has in society.

In this study, we spent a lot of time thinking about the practical significance of the findings. In any national economy, a 11 percent gap between men and women would be huge. But in virtual economies, overall wealth inequality tends to be orders of magnitude greater than in national economies, so that a 11 percent gap is in fact relatively minuscule. Other factors, like whether one is a casual participant in the economy or a semi-professional, have a much bigger effect, so much so that I’m not sure if participants notice a gender gap themselves. Thus one of the key conclusions of the study was that we also need to look beyond traditional sociodemographic categories like gender to see what new social divisions may be appearing in virtual economies.

Ed: What do you think are the hot topics and future directions in research (and policy) on virtual economies, gaming, microwork, crowd-sourcing etc.?

Vili: Previously, ICT adoption resulted in some people’s jobs being eliminated and others being enhanced. This shift had uneven impacts on men’s and women’s jobs. Today, we are seeing an Internet-fuelled “volunterisation” of some types of work—moving the work from paid employees and contractors to crowds and fans compensated with points, likes, and badges rather than money. Social researchers should keep track of how this shift impacts different social categories like men and women: whose work ends up being compensated in play money, and who gets to keep the conventional rewards.

Read the full article: Lehdonvirta, V., Ratan, R. A., Kennedy, T. L., and Williams, D. (2014) Pink and Blue Pixel$: Gender and Economic Disparity in Two Massive Online Games. The Information Society 30 (4) 243-255.

Vili Lehdonvirta is a Research Fellow and DPhil Programme Director at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an editor of the Policy & Internet journal. He is an economic sociologist who studies the social and economic dimensions of new information technologies around the world, with particular expertise in digital markets and crowdsourcing.

Vili Lehdonvirta was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Finnish decision to allow same-sex marriage “shows the power of citizen initiatives”

November rainbows in front of the Finnish parliament house in Helsinki, one hour before the vote for same-sex marriage. Photo by Anni Sairio.

In a pivotal vote today, the Finnish parliament voted in favour of removing references to gender in the country’s marriage law, which will make it possible for same-sex couples to get married. It was predicted to be an extremely close vote, but in the end gender neutrality won with 105 votes to 92. Same-sex couples have been able to enter into registered partnerships in Finland since 2002, but this form of union lacks some of the legal and more notably symbolic privileges of marriage. Today’s decision is thus a historic milestone in the progress towards tolerance and equality before the law for all the people of Finland.

Today’s parliamentary decision is also a milestone for another reason: it is the first piece of “crowdsourced” legislation on its way to becoming law in Finland. A 2012 constitutional change made it possible for 50,000 citizens or more to propose a bill to the parliament, through a mechanism known as the citizen initiative. Citizens can develop bills on a website maintained by the Open Ministry, a government-supported citizen association. The Open Ministry aims to be the deliberative version of government ministries that do the background work for government bills. Once the text of a citizen bill is finalised, citizens can also endorse it on a website maintained by the Ministry of Justice. If a bill attracts more than 50,000 endorsements within six months, it is delivered to the parliament.

A significant reason behind the creation of the citien initiative system was to increase citizen involvement in decision making and thus enhance the legitimacy of Finland’s political system: to make people feel that they can make a difference. Finland, like most Western democracies, is suffering from dwindling voter turnout rates (though in the last parliamentary elections, domestic voter turnout was a healthy 70.5 percent). However, here lies one of the potential pitfalls of the citizen initiative system. Of the six citizen bills delivered to the parliament so far, parliamentarians have outright rejected most proposals. According to research presented by Christensen and his colleagues at our Internet, Politics & Policy conference in Oxford in September (and to be published in issue 7:1 of Policy and Internet, March 2015), there is a risk that the citizen iniative system ends up having an effect that is opposite from what was intended:

“[T]hose who supported [a crowdsourced bill rejected by the parliament] experienced a drop in political trust as a result of not achieving this outcome. This shows that political legitimacy may well decline when participants do not get the intended result (cf. Budge, 2012). Hence, if crowdsourcing legislation in Finland is to have a positive impact on political legitimacy, it is important that it can help produce popular Citizens’ initiatives that are subsequently adopted by Parliament.”

One reason why citizen initiatives have faced a rough time in the parliament is that they are a somewhat odd addition to the parliament’s existing ways of working. The Finnish parliament, like most parliaments in representative democracies, is used to working in a government-opposition arrangement, where the government proposes bills, and parliamentarians belonging to government parties are expected to support those bills and resist bills originating from the opposition. Conversely, opposition leaders expect their members to be loyal to their own initiatives. In this arrangement, citizen initiatives have fallen into a no-man’s land where they are endorsed by neither government nor opposition members. Thanks to the party whip system, their only hope of passing has been in being adopted by the government. But the whole point of citizen initiatives is that they would allow bills not proposed by the government to reach parliament, making the exercise rather pointless.

The marriage equality citizen initiative was able to break this pattern not only because it enjoyed immense popular support, but also because many parliamentarians saw marriage equality as a matter of conscience, where the party whip system wouldn’t apply. Parliamentarians across party lines voted in support and against the initiative, in many cases ignoring their party leaders’ instructions.

Prime Minister Alexander Stubb commented immediately after the vote that the outcome “shows the power of citizen initiatives,” “citizen democracy and direct democracy”. Now that a precedent has been set, it is possible that subsequent citizen initiatives, too, get judged more on their merits than on who proposed them. Today’s decision on marriage equality may thus turn out to be historic not only for advancing equality and fairness, but also for helping to define crowdsourcing’s role in Finnish parliamentary decision making.

Vili Lehdonvirta is a Research Fellow and DPhil Programme Director at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an editor of the Policy & Internet journal. He is an economic sociologist who studies the social and economic dimensions of new information technologies around the world, with particular expertise in digital markets and crowdsourcing.

Economics for Orcs: how can virtual world economies inform national economies and those who design them?

Vili discusses his new book from MIT Press (with E.Castronova): Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis.

Digital gaming, once a stigmatised hobby, is now a mainstream cultural activity. According to the Oxford Internet Survey, more than half of British Internet users play games online; more in fact, than watch films or pornography online. Most new games today contain some kind of a virtual economy: that is, a set of processes for the production, allocation, and consumption of artificially scarce virtual goods. Often the virtual economy is very simple; sometimes, as in massively multiplayer online game EVE Online, it starts to approach the scale and complexity of a small national economy.

Just like national economies, virtual economies incentivise certain behaviours and discourage others; they ask people to make choices between mutually exclusive options; they ask people to coordinate. They can also propagate value systems setting out what modes of participation are considered valuable. These virtual economies are now built into many of the most popular areas of the Internet, including social media sites and knowledge commons—with their systems of artificially scarce likes, stars, votes, and badges. Understanding these economies is therefore crucial to anyone who is interested in the social dynamics and power relations of digital media today.

But a question I am asked a lot is: what can ‘real’ economies and the economists who run them learn from these virtual economies? We might start by imagining how a textbook economist would approach the economy of an online game. In EVE Online, hundreds of thousands of players trade minerals, spaceship components and other virtual commodities on a number of regional marketplaces. These marketplaces are very sophisticated, resembling real commodity spot markets.

Our economist would doubtless point out several ways its efficiency could be radically improved. For example, EVE players can only see prices quoted in their current region, likely missing a better deal available elsewhere. (In physical commodity markets, prices are instantly broadcast worldwide: you wouldn’t pay more for gold in Tokyo than you would in New York.) Our economist knows that providing more information to market participants increases the market’s efficiency, and might therefore suggest modifying the game such that all players gain instant and galaxy-wide access to the same price information. This would improve the overall efficiency of the galactic market.

This change would obviously be a blow to those players who have specialized in gathering and trading this price information. It would also reduce the opportunities for arbitrageurs: players who rummage the galaxy for underpriced goods, transporting them to regions where they will fetch a profit. Of course, these players could always turn themselves into haulers, the space equivalent of truck drivers. Increased efficiency would probably increase cross-regional trade, meaning a boom-time for haulers.

But wait—realising the infinite malleability of virtual economies, the textbook economist might decide to eliminate regions altogether. Distance is what economists refer to as a transaction cost: the economy would run much more efficiently without the need to transport things around. In a virtual environment goods and characters could be instantly teleported, or the galaxy simply collapsed into a single, dimensionless point. The efficiency of the virtual economy would certainly be greatly improved. But who would pay a subscription fee to participate in such a boring economy!

Why did our strawman economist make such a horrible mess of the game economy? Conventional economic laws are work equally well in virtual environments: the equilibrium price of a commodity in a competitive market is determined by the interaction of supply and demand, regardless of whether you are in the market for magic swords or soya beans. The crucial difference is in the objectives the economy is intended to fulfil. When conventional economists design and analyse economies, they take it as read that the purpose of the economy and its institutions is to solve the so-called economic problem: the allocation of limited resources so as to best satisfy human needs. Microeconomists do this by designing mechanisms that are as efficient as possible, while macroeconomists are concerned with maximising economic output.

But in game economies, the economic problem doesn’t really exist. The needs that players experience are contrived, created by positioning otherwise useless goods (magic swords) as desirable status items. The scarcity of resources is likewise artificial, enforced through programme code. If games designers wanted to solve the economic problem, they could do it with a few keystrokes; no markets or other economic institutions are required for this purpose.

Different multiplayer game economies have different aims, but one key objective stands out: the economy helps create and hold together the social fabric of the game. Regular interaction generates interpersonal ties and trust. Having people consume the fruits of one’s digital labour generates a sense of meaning, a sense of a role to play in the community. Division of labour and the resulting mutual interdependence moreover creates solidarity and social cohesion. In short, the economy can act as a wonderful glue holding people together.

The social fabric is important to game developers, because the stronger the ties between players, the longer the players will keep playing (and paying fees). Some games developers expend considerable resources in their own style of economic research, experimenting with different exchange mechanisms and institutions to find the designs that really strengthen the social fabric. When we examine the resulting virtual economies we can see that their design choices are often very different from the choices that a conventional economist would make.

I will give an example. One aspect of designing a market is designing an exchange mechanism: the concrete mechanism through which the buyer and the seller meet, settle on a price and quantity, and execute the transaction. The simplest exchange mechanism is two people meeting face to face to negotiate a trade, and then exchanging the goods on the spot. A more sophisticated mechanism is an online auction, like eBay. Stock markets use an even more sophisticated mechanism, where participants submit buy and sell offers, these are matched by an algorithm, and trades are executed automatically.

Given that many exchange mechanisms are possible, what kind of an exchange mechanism should be build into your market? When governments and companies create markets they usually turn to microeconomists specialising in this kind of mechanism design. The microeconomist’s answer is that you should choose the exchange mechanism that is most efficient, in the sense of allocating goods optimally and minimising all transaction costs: in the best case it may not even be necessary for the buyer and the seller to know each others’ identities.

Games economists, in contrast, tend to favour exchange mechanisms that involve social interaction; often through a virtual face-to-face meeting, where the tedious parts (explaining item characteristics) are automated, but negotiation over prices and quantities is conducted manually. Some locations in the virtual world often spontaneously emerge as sort of bazaars, where buyers and sellers congregate to search for deals. These double as social hubs where people come to meet friends and put on performances and displays, thereby building social capital. One might later consider one’s trading acquaintances when putting together a team for some quest.

More sophisticated exchange mechanisms, such as auction houses and the commodity spot markets in EVE Online, are also common in games, but they also avoid completely displacing social trade networks. In EVE Online, players must either move around in space or use their social networks to obtain price information from neighbouring localities. This way, EVE Online’s developers have struck a balance between efficiency and social ties. One thing that virtual economies can teach is to look for other objectives besides efficiency and output as variables that need to be maximised in an economic system.

I would argue that a focus on social fabric—rather than just on efficiency and output—can usefully inform national economies. First, in today’s affluent societies, we are close to solving the economic problem: in the United Kingdom or the United States the need for life-sustaining material basics is all but fulfilled. Keynes predicted 90 years ago that the economic problem will be solved within 100 years; in the affluent parts of the world, it looks like he may have been right. The greatest problem faced by the UK and US today is not the economic problem, but the disintegration of the social fabric. Virtual economies show how economic institutions could be arranged so as to strengthen it.

Second, even in that greater part of the world where the economic problem still remains acute, it is not the case that we should focus on it exclusively. Poor countries should not have to go through social disintegration to reach economic affluence. Third, as I have already mentioned, games and virtual economies have become significant phenomena in their own right. Their creators are smart people who have developed many economic insights of their own. They are eager for knowledge on how to better design and operate these economies, but conventional economic advice that focuses solely on efficiency fails to address their needs. Economists and economic sociologists should widen their research to develop answers that satisfy the needs of virtual economy designers—and also of a more ‘social’ national economy.

Now, to be fair, the fact that markets and other modern economic institutions can serve important social functions has been known to sociologists since Émile Durkheim. But this has been regarded as something of a side effect, and certainly not the purpose for which these institutions are created. Game economies are radical in this respect – that they are created entirely to serve these other functions, rather than any material function. Economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformation that in the transition from a traditional to a market society, social structure was rearranged to serve the needs of the economy. What game economies do is in some ways the opposite: they rearrange the economy to serve the needs of the social structure. And that would seem to be a very worthwhile endeavour.

Read more: Vili Lehdonvirta and Edward Castronova (2014) Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis. MIT Press.

Vili Lehdonvirta is a Research Fellow at OII. He is an economic sociologist who studies the social and economic dimensions of new information technologies around the world. His particular areas of expertise are virtual goods, virtual currencies, and digital labour. Vili’s book Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis (with Edward Castronova) is published by MIT Press.

Past and Emerging Themes in Policy and Internet Studies

We can’t understand, analyze or make public policy without understanding the technological, social and economic shifts associated with the Internet. Image from the (post-PRISM) “Stop Watching Us” Berlin Demonstration (2013) by mw238.

In the journal’s inaugural issue, founding Editor-in-Chief Helen Margetts outlined what are essentially two central premises behind Policy & Internet’s launch. The first is that “we cannot understand, analyse or make public policy without understanding the technological, social and economic shifts associated with the Internet” (Margetts 2009, 1). It is simply not possible to consider public policy today without some regard for the intertwining of information technologies with everyday life and society. The second premise is that the rise of the Internet is associated with shifts in how policy itself is made. In particular, she proposed that impacts of Internet adoption would be felt in the tools through which policies are effected, and the values that policy processes embody.

The purpose of the Policy and Internet journal was to take up these two challenges: the public policy implications of Internet-related social change, and Internet-related changes in policy processes themselves. In recognition of the inherently multi-disciplinary nature of policy research, the journal is designed to act as a meeting place for all kinds of disciplinary and methodological approaches. Helen predicted that methodological approaches based on large-scale transactional data, network analysis, and experimentation would turn out to be particularly important for policy and Internet studies. Driving the advancement of these methods was therefore the journal’s third purpose. Today, the journal has reached a significant milestone: over one hundred high-quality peer-reviewed articles published. This seems an opportune moment to take stock of what kind of research we have published in practice, and see how it stacks up against the original vision.

At the most general level, the journal’s articles fall into three broad categories: the Internet and public policy (48 articles), the Internet and policy processes (51 articles), and discussion of novel methodologies (10 articles). The first of these categories, “the Internet and public policy,” can be further broken down into a number of subcategories. One of the most prominent of these streams is fundamental rights in a mediated society (11 articles), which focuses particularly on privacy and freedom of expression. Related streams are children and child protection (six articles), copyright and piracy (five articles), and general e-commerce regulation (six articles), including taxation. A recently emerged stream in the journal is hate speech and cybersecurity (four articles). Of course, an enduring research stream is Internet governance, or the regulation of technical infrastructures and economic institutions that constitute the material basis of the Internet (seven articles). In recent years, the research agenda in this stream has been influenced by national policy debates around broadband market competition and network neutrality (Hahn and Singer 2013). Another enduring stream deals with the Internet and public health (eight articles).

Looking specifically at “the Internet and policy processes” category, the largest stream is e-participation, or the role of the Internet in engaging citizens in national and local government policy processes, through methods such as online deliberation, petition platforms, and voting advice applications (18 articles). Two other streams are e-government, or the use of Internet technologies for government service provision (seven articles), and e-politics, or the use of the Internet in mainstream politics, such as election campaigning and communications of the political elite (nine articles). Another stream that has gained pace during recent years, is online collective action, or the role of the Internet in activism, ‘clicktivism,’ and protest campaigns (16 articles). Last year the journal published a special issue on online collective action (Calderaro and Kavada 2013), and the next forthcoming issue includes an invited article on digital civics by Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, with commentary from prominent scholars of Internet activism. A trajectory discernible in this stream over the years is a movement from discussing mere potentials towards analyzing real impacts—including critical analyses of the sometimes inflated expectations and “democracy bubbles” created by digital media (Shulman 2009; Karpf 2012; Bryer 2012).

The final category, discussion of novel methodologies, consists of articles that develop, analyse, and reflect critically on methodological innovations in policy and Internet studies. Empirical articles published in the journal have made use of a wide range of conventional and novel research methods, from interviews and surveys to automated content analysis and advanced network analysis methods. But of those articles where methodology is the topic rather than merely the tool, the majority deal with so-called “big data,” or the use of large-scale transactional data sources in research, commerce, and evidence-based public policy (nine articles). The journal recently devoted a special issue to the potentials and pitfalls of big data for public policy (Margetts and Sutcliffe 2013), based on selected contributions to the journal’s 2012 big data conference: Big Data, Big Challenges? In general, the notion of data science and public policy is a growing research theme.

This brief analysis suggests that research published in the journal over the last five years has indeed followed the broad contours of the original vision. The two challenges, namely policy implications of Internet-related social change and Internet-related changes in policy processes, have both been addressed. In particular, research has addressed the implications of the Internet’s increasing role in social and political life. The journal has also furthered the development of new methodologies, especially the use of online network analysis techniques and large-scale transactional data sources (aka ‘big data’).

As expected, authors from a wide range of disciplines have contributed their perspectives to the journal, and engaged with other disciplines, while retaining the rigour of their own specialisms. The geographic scope of the contributions has been truly global, with authors and research contexts from six continents. I am also pleased to note that a characteristic common to all the published articles is polish; this is no doubt in part due to the high level of editorial support that the journal is able to afford to authors, including copyediting. The justifications for the journal’s establishment five years ago have clearly been borne out, so that the journal now performs an important function in fostering and bringing together research on the public policy implications of an increasingly Internet-mediated society.

And what of my own research interests as an editor? In the inaugural editorial, Helen Margetts highlighted work, finance, exchange, and economic themes in general as being among the prominent areas of Internet-related social change that are likely to have significant future policy implications. I think for the most part, these implications remain to be addressed, and this is an area that the journal can encourage authors to tackle better. As an editor, I will work to direct attention to this opportunity, and welcome manuscript submissions on all aspects of Internet-enabled economic change and its policy implications. This work will be kickstarted by the journal’s 2014 conference (26-27 September), which this year focuses on crowdsourcing and online labor.

Our published articles will continue to be highlighted here in the journal’s blog. Launched last year, we believe this blog will help to expand the reach and impact of research published in Policy and Internet to the wider academic and practitioner communities, promote discussion, and increase authors’ citations. After all, publication is only the start of an article’s public life: we want people reading, debating, citing, and offering responses to the research that we, and our excellent reviewers, feel is important, and worth publishing.

Read the full editorial:  Lehdonvirta, V. (2014) Past and Emerging Themes in Policy and Internet Studies. Policy & Internet 6(2): 109-114.


Bryer, T.A. (2011) Online Public Engagement in the Obama Administration: Building a Democracy Bubble? Policy & Internet 3 (4).

Calderaro, A. and Kavada, A. (2013) Challenges and Opportunities of Online Collective Action for Policy Change. Policy & Internet (5) 1.

Hahn, R. and Singer, H. (2013) Is the U.S. Government’s Internet Policy Broken? Policy & Internet 5 (3) 340-363.

Karpf, D. (2012) Online Political Mobilisation from the Advocacy Group’s Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism. Policy & Internet 2 (4) 7-41.

Margetts, H. (2009) The Internet and Public Policy. Policy and Internet 1 (1).

Margetts, H. and Sutcliffe, D. (2013) Addressing the Policy Challenges and Opportunities of ‘Big Data.’ Policy & Internet 5 (2) 139-146.

Shulman, S.W. (2009) The Case Against Mass E-mails: Perverse Incentives and Low Quality Public Participation in U.S. Federal Rulemaking. Policy & Internet 1 (1) 23-53.